Most students know they need to take handwritten notes. It’s kind of the “go-to” for study skills. “Need better grades? Have you tried taking notes?”
It’s common sense, right? If you want to remember something, you need to write it down. If I have something to-do, but I didn’t write it down, it’s a coin flip whether or not I’ll remember it (and even then, it may not be until 11:30 at night). That’s why I write everything I need to get done on my whiteboard. My wife hates it because it’s somewhat messy. I love it because I can remember what I’m doing.
Writing boosts memory. That’s just the way it goes.
In the last few years, though, tech has created a new question: do digital notes have the same effect as handwritten notes?
It’s a great question, and one which I’m not qualified to answer. All I can do is tell you that I’ve always thought handwritten notes work better for me.
But luckily for us the cognitive psychologists of the world have completed a study on handwritten notes for students. They wanted to see which was more effective, or if it didn’t really matter. Interested to hear the results?
The Handwritten Notes vs. Digital Notes Study
This study was performed by two European professors: Professor Anne Mangen of Stavanger University in Norway, and neurophysiologist Jean-Luc Velay of Marseille University. (That’s a lot of brain power, by the way)
The researchers compared two groups of volunteers, both asked to learn an unfamiliar alphabet. The first group used the age-old method of pen and paper (aka, handwritten notes). The second group used a keyboard. Results were calculated each week, which helped them determine the final result: handwritten notes ruled the day. The pen and paper group learned the alphabet better than the keyboard group.
So, we can say — according to this study — students who take handwritten notes with pen and paper learn better than those using a keyboard.
Why handwritten notes are better for you
Handwritten notes engage more of the senses. The brain is more active, so the learning process is enhanced. This is actually part of an area of study called “haptics.” Researchers in this arena are studying the way our minds and bodies interact in the learning process.
It’s the “tactile” or “kinesthetic” learning idea in action. The more physically active you are, including taking handwritten notes, the more likely you are to remember information well.
So, educational exercise and physical exercise are not as different as you may think. The brain, like the body, needs to be worked and stretched in order to grow and strengthen. While the saying, “No pain, no gain” is over-used athletically, it is undervalued in the academic world. If handwritten notes really do engage more of the senses, and therefore more of the brain than typed notes, then wouldn’t it make sense to exercise more of your brain than less?
And there are plenty of opportunities for you to write your notes by hand. Whether your are reading a textbook for class, or listening to a lecture, you need an effective approach. Otherwise you are doing what we call “wasting time.”
If handwritten notes are so effective, why don’t students always use them?
This is a great question. Digital notes are actually more helpful in 3 main ways, which often (probably for the detriment of students) encourage students to replace handwritten notes with digital.
While convenience is nice, it probably shouldn’t replace effectiveness. Laptops provide a quick and easy way to record information and save it. They also eliminate the hassle of keeping notebook paper organized and safe—it’s much harder to lose a laptop than a notebook, in my experience. (Not impossible, but harder)
Maybe this isn’t a problem for you. It is for me. My handwritten notes are at times so bad I can’t even read them. That’s why we actually encourage taking digital notes – but not while in class. Record and clean up your notes after the fact, but do your best to take handwritten notes when in class.
It’s far easier to share your notes with someone else when they’re in a digital format. That said, remember that taking notes is actually far more effective than reading a classmate’s notes. It’s the process of taking notes, not the product, that matters most.
Our recommendation on handwritten notes:
Handwritten notes result in an increase in knowledge, retention, and learning.
They aren’t easier. They aren’t faster. They aren’t as legible. They can make your hand hurt. And your dog can eat them.
But you should take them anyway. Sure, make digital copies later; just don’t neglect the handwritten ones.
Athletes don’t reach world-class status without a bit of difficult exercise. Track stars have to do the sprint drills. Basketball players have to run gassers. Football players have two-a-days in the middle of the summer.
And students don’t reach world-class academic status without some difficult exercise either. So take a step back technologically the next time you sit down in a lecture. Close the computer, pull out the notebook (the one with paper, not a keyboard), and slowly but surely work the muscles of your brain into better shape. Your grades will thank you.